First look in Oregon District building unoccupied for decades

Credit: Jim Witmer

Credit: Jim Witmer

An historic Oregon District commercial building on Fifth Street unoccupied for decades and undergoing a $1 million rehab has long held some secrets.

They’re on the third floor - unoccupied for at least 50 years.

One huge room used to be a roller rink - and perhaps something else.

A speakeasy-style peephole is drilled through a door and hidden behind a hinged wood cover, just like you’d see in the movies. An outer door to what was once a cloak room has a similar arrangement.

And inside a metal utility cover for a natural gas valve in the larger room are signatures and dates from the 1890s, some that seem to record track times for the skating rink.

Clive Wilson and his wife Geeta have made fixing up 424 E. Fifth St. their mission, planning to house a restaurant, bakery, gift shop and apartment in the three-story, 15,000 square-foot building.

The Balsley Building, built in 1876, once housed a laundromat and the old West Side News, among other odds and ends including Morris Furniture. The interior’s Italian marble and hard wood floors, skylights and ancient wallpaper testify to life a century ago.

The couple has already invested $400,000 in foundation, window, skylight and mechanical repairs. They hope to apply for a permit from the city within weeks to finish up the project with interior remodeling. They’d like to welcome the building’s first business by year’s end.

Was the third floor a clubhouse of some kind? A fraternal club? An illegal speakeasy, or drinking establishment, during the Prohibition era? Or was it an illegal gambling house? Nobody knows for sure.

It’s fun to speculate.

Clive and Geeta purchased the building in 2012. Clive, a native of Great Britain who taught at Kettering College for 11 years before retiring, has for now been spending his weekends preparing the building for a full-scale renovation that will begin soon. Geeta is also a British native.

He’s had help from his four sons, Premkush, Rishi, Kishi, and Knushi, and Geeta, who works for Humana as a consumer experience expert.

“We hope to renovate it back to it’s original charm,” Clive said.

Geeta foresees a gift business, eco-friendly products, and a restaurant specializing in cuisine that will be new to the area. She’s keeping the restaurant style a secret for now.

But the gift business would include a curator who could help select gifts for people. “”We’re trying to help people be nice,” she said.

The couple say that they’ve already fielded inquiries from potential business and residential occupants.

Both have a deep belief that Dayton is on the way up from the Great Recession’s doldrums and they want to be part of the movement.

“People underestimate the resilience of Dayton,” Geeta said. “If you put faith in Dayton, they will put faith in you.”

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